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South Division Report: Amarillo taking early success in stride

October 21, 2010
by Zach Duncan, NAHL.com

Amarillo's Nikifor Szczerba holds an impressive 9-1-1 record on the season.

Dennis Williams is a firm believer in keeping everything on an even keel.

So though his Amarillo Bulls are fresh off an impressive two-game sweep of the Topeka RoadRunners and are tied for the NAHL South lead, don’t expect them to be overconfident.

“It’s a long season, and we’ll have some highs and lows,” said Williams, who came to the Bulls after coaching at Bowling Green State University. “Whatever gets thrown at us, we just have to keep going.”

Saturday night was a perfect example of maintaining composure through adversity.

After the Bulls’ 4-2 victory on Friday in which Dan Sherer scored twice - including the game-winner with 7:15 left to go - Topeka surged ahead 4-1 the next night.

But the Bulls didn’t panic. When Michael Erickson scored with one second remaining in the second period, Amarillo was reenergized despite trailing by two goals.

“It gave us some life,” Williams said. “In the locker room, we talked about how we’ve scored two goals in a lot of periods this year. We weren’t going to change our game plan.”

Terrence Johnson and Chris Cass responded by finding the back of the net in the final 20 minutes, and Johnson notched the difference-maker in the seventh round of the shootout.

The Bulls are third in the NAHL in scoring, averaging 4.15 goals a game. But there isn’t anyone from Amarillo in the top 15 of the league’s scoring leaders.

Impressive depth is the reason for that. Ten players have recorded at least eight points, led by Zack Smoot (six goals, eight assists) and Cody Freeman (seven goals, five assists).

In fact, there’s not a single player on Amarillo’s current roster with a plus-minus rating in the red.

“All four lines are contributing,” said Williams. “I can’t tell you who our No. 1 line is right now. We’ve strived on 5-on-5 hockey.”

The defense, led by captain Derek Hills, Luke Jenkins and Karl Beckman, has also hunkered down, allowing only 26.42 shots per game.

Williams said Amarillo has a good mix of veterans and junior hockey newcomers. Eight Bulls played last season with the Albert Lea Thunder, the team that relocated to Texas during the offseason.

One of those was Smoot, who Williams said is a fast skater and good puckhandler who’ss elevated his game up a notch since the preseason.

Another is goaltender Nikifor Szczerba, who played in 13 games for the Thunder in 2009-10.

“I thought at camp, he looked a little out of shape and his conditioning was suspect,” Williams said. “Now he’s getting in workouts after games, going hard on a bike.

“And more and more guys are doing that. We had 12 guys doing a squat workout after Saturday’s game, and that was a tough battle. That’s really nice to see.”

The hard work has paid off for Szczerba, who is sporting a 9-1-1 record with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.

And it’a paid off for the Bulls, who will look to keep the momentum rolling Friday at home against Wichita Falls.

SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK

CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: The IceRays couldn’t extend Friday’s 2-1 overtime loss to Wichita Falls into a shootout, but if they had, Corpus Christi would have owned an edge. The IceRays’ success rate of 55.6 percent (10 of 18) trails only Austin as the league’s top shootout team.

NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: Eli Riddle scored his fifth goal of the season in Saturday’s loss to Texas. Only two NAHL defensemen have scored more goals, and no blueliners have a better shooting percentage than his (.313).

TEXAS TORNADO: After sweeping New Mexico, the Tornado is riding an NAHL-best six game winning streak and is tied for the division lead. Sean Heidrick scored four goals in Friday’s 8-2 victory, and goalie Jimmy Kruger made 26 saves in Saturday’s 3-1 outcome, boosting his record between the pipes to 5-0.

TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Daniel Dupell scored a pair of goals in Saturday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Amarillo, including his league-leading second shorthanded tally of the year. Topeka killed off all 17 of the Bulls’ power plays over the weekend, bumping its success rate to 91.1 percent, third best in the league.

WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Tyler Green (2.46 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) has emerged as the team’s No. 1 netminder, starting in five of the Wildcats’ last six outings. His record improved to 5-1-2 after he stopped 17 of 18 shots in Wichita Falls’ 2-1 overtime victory against the IceRays.
 

 
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